The Monster of Art
Yesterday, after watching clips of Lady Gaga’s peculiar drag performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, I became aware of two things almost simultaneously. The first is that Gaga is the ultimate realization of what Cindy Sherman once promised. I’ve been a huge fan of Sherman’s ever since discovering her Untitled Film Stills, with their uneasy but seductive commentaries on roleplaying, voyeurism, and, above all, the importance of movies in shaping our ideas of ourselves and others. Although her work has grown increasingly alienating over time, she remains one of our most interesting artists, and you can draw a direct line from her to Gaga, an acknowledged fan. Indeed, Gaga might be Sherman’s daughter: both women are provocateurs, aggressively intelligent yet fascinatingly blank, famous but unknown, so that either could probably walk down the street unrecognized, after all the costumes and disguises have been stripped away.
Of course, Gaga is far more famous than Sherman has ever been, which leads me to my second realization, which is that we’re witnessing a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in twenty years or more. Gaga is that rarest of pop icons, a deservedly popular artist who also serves as a conduit for smuggling unexpected images and ideas into America’s heartland. The VMAs were seen by the largest audience in MTV history, which means that Gaga’s strange little drag act succeeded, if nothing else, in confusing the hell out of millions. I’m not saying that her performance as Jo Calderone was entirely successful—the reaction of most viewers was probably close to Justin Bieber’s—but the fact that it was staged at all, with such oddness and commitment, counts as a weird sort of triumph, a Whitney Biennial moment in a Jersey Shore world.
And a crucial part of Gaga’s genius is her accessibility. Some have criticized her for linking outrageous imagery to resolutely conventional (if highly accomplished) pop music, but it’s hard to imagine her ascending to her current cultural position in any other way. And her talent as a musician shouldn’t be underestimated. As a lifelong fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I’ve always believed that dance music can be as rich a form of expression as any other, and Gaga comes closer than any arena-level artist in a long time to achieving that magical combination of irony, earnestness, and encyclopedic skill. A song like “Alejandro” is a miniature history of pop music, both good and bad, as well as a movie, a radio play, and a sensational dance song. And Gaga’s art absolutely needs to be part of the mainstream to make any sense. It’s no accident that her first two albums are called The Fame and The Fame Monster.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this heady combination of surrealism and accessibility hasn’t been seen in this country for more than twenty years—since June 10, 1991, to be exact, when Twin Peaks went off the air. Both Lady Gaga and David Lynch used their nimbleness, intelligence, and talent to introduce an unprecedented level of strangeness to a mass audience. Both ended up on the cover of Time. Both were clearly just good kids at heart. And both emerged during recessionary, politically divided, and culturally conservative periods that nonetheless managed to produce at least one exemplar of the outré, as if all the culture’s unresolved weirdness were being channeled into a single icon. Lynch, of course, has retreated in recent years, and where Gaga goes from here is anyone’s guess: I have no doubt she’ll continue to produce interesting music, but it’s hard to imagine her thriving anywhere but in the spotlight. But at the moment, she threatens to make the rest of us seem obsolete.